I was delighted to attend a fantastic event at the Wallace Collection last Saturday. It was to celebrate the opening of the new Great Gallery there, which has recently re-opened after a two-year refurbishment programme. It was a special evening access event for deaf and hard of hearing people, which was made fully inclusive to all via total communication support in the form of professional lipspeaking, BSL and SSE interpreters.
When I first heard about this event I was immediately interested in attending because it would be the first organised event for deaf people that I had seen that didn’t just cater for one section of the deaf and hard of hearing community in terms of the communication support provided. This event was for the full spectrum of the deaf community.
I was amazed to see so many people there, and such a diversity of people, from cochlear implant users like myself, to deaf BSL users, deafened and hard of hearing people. I met up with several of my deaf friends and people I know from the various deaf groups and charities I am involved with. This was the first time I had seen them all together at the same venue. I also met some new people that evening, and there were people from all age groups.
The Great Gallery is the “jewel in the crown” of the Wallace Collection and runs the entire length of the city block in Central London. As I stood there and gazed around me, I was struck by how beautiful it is. It is truly stunning and it takes your breath away. With its red silk walls covered in Old Master paintings in opulent gold frames, I felt like I was standing inside one of the Royal Palaces.
Lucy Davies, the curator at the Wallace Collection, started out by describing the refurbishment programme of the Great Gallery, which was a huge project lasting two years, and how excited they were to re-open it recently. It was originally built by the founder of the Wallace Collection, Sir Richard Wallace, in 1870. It was intended as a picture gallery in Hertford House to amaze visitors by showing off his best paintings and furniture.
During the recent refurbishment programme, they rebuilt the ceiling and introduced natural lighting through it, which is how it was originally intended to be. This gallery is special and different from other museums as it displays masterpieces from all over Europe in one space, and it is not divided into many national schools. Most of the paintings in the gallery are European paintings dating back to the 17th Century, which the Marquesses of Hertford and Richard Wallace collected in the 19th Century.
After Lucy’s talk, there was a series of talks to the group by four different deaf or hard of hearing lecturers and art experts, with each person talking about one of their favourite paintings or artefacts in the Great Gallery, with fascinating stories about the background of each one and its connection with the Hertford and Wallace families.
One of my favourite talks was a BSL talk by John Wilson, about a large painting of King George IV done in 1822 by the artist Thomas Lawrence in the Great Gallery. The artist’s life and career were quite closely connected to the subject, and the original owner of this painting, the third Marquess of Hertford, was a former ambassador to Berlin and Vienna and also Master of the Horse to George IV.
At the time of the painting King George IV was 61 years old and he weighed 21½ stones. He is wearing a chestnut wig in the portrait and he liked to be painted by Thomas Lawrence as he painted him in a very flattering light.
With two failed marriages behind him before he became king, Prince George began a relationship with Lady Hertford, who later became his mistress when she was a very large 50-year old woman, and he was 45 years old. He used to visit her every afternoon at Hertford House (the present Wallace Collection museum).
In 1820 the Prince Regent became King George IV and he replaced Lady Hertford with Lady Conyngham, an obese 52-year old woman. The painting of King George was given to Lady Conyngham and it was later acquired by Sir Richard Wallace to be displayed in Hertford House.
I was fascinated to learn that one of Thomas Lawrence’s pupils and assistants, Samuel Lane, was profoundly deaf and he lived with Lawrence in his house in Soho. When Lawrence died he left all his paintings to Lane, who finished off many of them. Sadly, Lane never achieved the recognition as a great portrait painter that Lawrence achieved in his lifetime.
The other talk, which I particularly enjoyed, was Edward Richard’s talk in BSL. I can hear much better now that I have my cochlear implant, but since I became deafened four years ago, I have become much more visual. Edward signed beautifully in a very visual, descriptive way, but since I am not fluent at all, it really helped me to watch Edward signing and listen to his BSL interpreter too. This added a whole new dimension for me.
Edward talked about two of the gilded bronze sculptures on the table at the back of the Great Gallery. They were sculpted by Pietro Tacca and his son Ferdinando in Florence in c.1640-50 and were commissioned by the Grand Duke Cosimo II de’Medici, who was from a very wealthy Italian dynasty.
The models in the Wallace Collection were based on two classical Greek myths about Hercules, the Greek god. One of them shows Hercules battling with a centaur (a half man, half horse creature), who had angered him by being engaged to his lover, Deianeira, who later became his second wife and then killed him. The other one shows Hercules in a struggle with the river god Achelous, another rival for the hand of his beloved Deianeira.
Ferdinando Tacca, Pietro’s son, was also an engineer, architect and stage designer in Florence. Edward described in a very visual way how we can see the influence of theatrical design in the sculptures in the very dramatic facial features and depiction of Hercules wrestling the centaur to the ground and the contortions of the centaur’s body.
Both sculptures were bought by the 3rd Marquess of Hertford and first recorded in Dorchester House (which later became the Dorchester Hotel) in 1842.
After the talks, the Wallace Collection provided free glasses of wine for us all in the courtyard restaurant where we all had a good chat in a beautiful location. It was great to see such a diversity of deaf and hard of hearing people of all ages and backgrounds enjoying themselves.
I would like to thank Edwina, Lucy and the rest of the Wallace Collection staff for organising such a great accessible event. I hope there will be more of these events, which bring deaf people together, are informative and interesting, as well as being really good fun. Well done to the Wallace Collection!
With thanks to Michael Theobald too for providing me with the photos.